Bagground Snobbery, Arranged Marriages, ‘Fundos’ and Jimmy Choos

“At the moment we have a ruling class that has one law and the people the other” – Imran Khan

Pakistani renowned writer Moni Mohsin’s latest novel in her signature vein of social satire presents ‘Tender Hooks’, a running commentary in diary style on what appears to be, at first, a typical bored, upper class Pakistani housewife’s day-to-day lifestyle. Asked to find a bride for her recently divorced cousin, loveably named ‘Jonkers’, the anonymous heroine of this novel visits the homes of “illegible” females in order to find someone who has a suitable “bagground” and status which meets their standards. Presented in a rambling first person narrative , we follow the protagonist on a very entertaining and comical journey, as she mauls the English language, criticises various unsuitable ‘potentials’ and discusses the merits of buying designer outfits and having similarly designer ‘kitty’ parties with her upper class, all in the backdrop of high society in Lahore, and a “bomb-shombs” culture . Our narrator quickly exposes herself to be a materialistic, and at times, ignorant woman, yet in the midst of her disdain for the lower classes, there are still many jokes to be enjoyed, and surprisingly even some life lessons to be learned.

Constantly interjecting English with Urdu phrases (“haan na”, “yaar”, “haw”, “uff!” ) to combine and create her own pidgin form of English language. This often results in hilarious slip-ups as she ends up with spelling mistakes and errors (“My Oxen-educated husband”), which often undermine her boasts about her brand-name goods and snooty attitude, creating wonderful situations of misspelling and misunderstanding. Mohsin shrewdly presents a woman who arrogantly looks down on those who are “ “total uneducated”, while ironically at the same presenting herself as superficial and as having a poor grasp of English herself. Yet although she is not a woman you’d have much sympathy with, she still proves herself to be a smart, pragmatic woman, helping keeping relatives happy and making the most of opportunistic moments.

There is a strong relevance of families and relatives also running through the novel, even though they are always being described as “a bit bore”, suggesting that the narrator is unwilling to face serious issues with her family. This only further makes her come across as a superficial and childish character (“Mummy is such a side-taker”), although as the novel goes on, it begins to also show how

There is a strong relevance of families and relatives also running through the novel, even though they are always being described as “a bit bore”, suggesting that the narrator is unwilling to face serious issues with her family. This only further makes her come across as a superficial and childish character (“Mummy is such a side-taker”), although as the novel goes on, it begins to also show how

Similarly, although she often underestimates her wealthy husband, her views of marriage are quite traditional. Her assertion that a “full house” equates to a happy marriage, suggests that she is unable to differentiate the difference between popularity and social standing, and a relationship between husband and wife, as she spouts the stereotypical values ingrained in her that she has been brought up with and is expected to follow. It is an interesting irony of both her marriage and her conflict with her husband then, that although she does love her family, she is not really close to her son or her husband, and does not really understand them.

In this respect then, this novel is a subtly feminist one; with wry assertions that “Men are never soiled goods”, and the undermining of feminist rights (being, to the narrator, synonymous with the strange concept of ‘lesbianism’), the writer cleverly shows the various layers of double standards which are always present in society. While men have a better advantage in marriage market, Mohsin’s protagonist shows how women in these social groups are as much trapped in their expectations and superficial values as they judge others in. While there is a continuous contrast of female characters and the male – the men such as Jonkers and Janoo are seen as serious and down to earth – yet not taken seriously by any of the female characters, continuously sidelined despite the fact that they are able to have more ‘serious’, intellectual discussions. In an amusing twist, then, does Mohsin overturn the representation of the marginalisation of women’s roles in Pakistan by choosing to push the wealthy, educated men into the foregrounds, while some are presented as weak and comical, most are not taken seriously by their wives and are left to be grouped together, classed as “tau total bore”.

Yet not the entire novel is presented as a light-hearted romp, in search of a suitable bride. Always simmering in the backdrop are the harsh realities of Lahore: the perils of terrorism and the politics of a country which is falling apart. In one scene of the novel in which the narrator and her friend are held up by a gunman while out shopping, our social butterfly reveals her courageous and gritty side, despite her fear and her indignation at being robbed of her valuables. This effectively helps to view this character in a new light, giving her layers of complexities which reinforces her personality and breaks down her stereotypical ‘bimbo’ image.  Politics, war and  “fundos” (or fundamentalists) are all of the new, growing culture that makes up modern Lahore, and this is never fully ignored by the author. While for the Pakistanis this is a normal mentality and part of their lives, and they don’t really seek to change it, the fact that they have an awareness of the way society has changed shows that they are never fully comfortable and able to ignore the unpleasant aspects of their lives. The most chilling description to describe this state of restlessness is the narrator’s wariness about “who will guard the guards”, which gives a sinister feel about the false sense of security the upper class feel.

Similarly, there is a notable lack of representation of the poor and lower classes, which are seen as nearly invisible, and completely dispensable in the form of servants and maids. Here is a class who are not viewed as equal, and are viewed as commodities by the wealthy upper-class, where the latest outfits and shoes are as important to their stature as servants who can speak English property and can be trained to answer the telephone properly. We see the extent some characters go to mould their reputation, such as renaming their servants to suit their own needs – effectively shaping their servant’s identities to suit their own carefree and errant lifestyles. Thus the importance of ‘face’, status and reputation and how they are viewed by the higher class becomes the very issues which cripples them and restricts them, shaping their actions as they are too afraid not to conform to the norm. In a society where ‘old money’ outweighs ‘new money’, that is, those who inherited their wealth over those who have made their money from successful business, there seems to be an inversion of progression, both in society’s modernisation and in values.

Conversely, however, is the assertion of “Lahore, my city”, always emphasising a sense of belonging and identity, runs along the snobbish tone of the novel, which provides more of a down-to-earth tone, and something to relate to. Through comical devices such as the misuse of language, and the different ‘traditions’ followed by culture (such as the concept of ‘Asian timing’, where “come on time” means  coming at 11 when you’ve been told 9), and superstitious beliefs such as ‘nazar’ (evil eye) and emotional blackmail from Aunties, Mohsin provides a rich commentary on the day-to-day lives of bored housewives and their constant attempts to create their own independent lifestyles of luxury. In addition to this is the continuous imagery and comparisons to people, places and behaviour, such as the risk of “forbidden fruit” simply being “a stinky old banana”, and the description of a suitable wife who is supportive as a “girl, not sports bra”, there are plenty of laughs to be had in this novel.

Mohsin sets off to satirise high society in Pakistan, and ridicule their ‘head in  the sand’ approach to the state of affairs in their country, choosing to comfort themselves with unrealistic luxuries. It is easy to get caught up in the mess that the characters get into, and the journey the protagonist takes, which manages to make us smile and change our perceptions on several things. We see her shallow material self gradually show a deeper, more compassionate facet, and we follow as she learns some important life lessons. While on the other end of the spectrum lies the rich ‘wild-child’, the Western educated daughters who reject their roots and what is expected of them (as is the case in one ‘potential’ bride’), the emphasis appears to stay on the values of family and relationships. Although the narrator can appear callous at times in her judgements, she still makes some shrewd observations which prompt us to view situations in a different way, and humanises her in a way that her yearnings for more designer brands and kitty parties cannot. We see that the importance of various aspects of Pakistan, from the rich and reckless upper-class, to the ‘fundos’ and ‘beardo-weirdos’ add to the landscape of the country, serving to create a soulful image of a changing identity for both country and the author.


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